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Goodreads’ utopian dream just collided with the reality of social media and gatekeeper-free self-publishing

A couple of weeks ago, Goodreads — a massive social networking and cataloging site for books, readers and authors — announced a change in its moderation policy. From now on, the site’s administrators would be deleting “reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior.” This was a big change. In the past, Goodreads has been largely unmoderated, despite terms of service stating, “You agree not to post User Content that […] contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable,” and reserving the rights to remove any post violating those standards.

The impetus for all this is a raging feud between relatively small groups of reviewers and authors. (Goodreads has about 20 million members, although only a fraction of that number actively uses the site.) That conflict, mostly carried out far from the public eye, rose to a little prominence over the summer when Lauren Pippa (aka Lauren Howard), a self-published author about to release her first book, challenged a Goodreads member who had given her book a two-star rating. Goodreads explicitly permits members to rate books that have yet to be published, and publishers often distribute advance copies to those they deem influential in the community. Furthermore, some members use the star system to flag forthcoming books they want either to seek out or to avoid. Pippa later claimed not to have known about this custom.

The comment Pippa posted to the member’s rating and complaints she made in a Goodreads forum garnered some scathing responses from other commenters and a rash of one-star ratings from their friends. This in turn prompted some of Pippa’s friends to fling insults at her critics, which led even more Goodreads members to include her forthcoming book in their “do not read” lists. Pippa complained about all of this on Twitter, which led to even more retaliation, until finally she announced on her blog that she’d been “bullied” into canceling the release of her book and threatened with violence. Later, Pippa reconsidered that decision, admitting that she was mistaken about being threatened and blaming her reaction to the whole affair on PMS.